Darfur Peacekeepers Routed in Rebel Assault

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African Union forces were routed from their base in northern Darfur after rebels launched an unprecedented surprise assault on the peacekeeping contingent over the weekend that killed at least 10 soldiers and left the camp a smoldering ruin.

About 1,000 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army — the largest rebel group in Darfur — initially attacked the base outside the town of Haskanita on Saturday around sunset, when Muslims break their daytime fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, AU officers told The Associated Press Sunday at the scene of the attack. The rebels stormed the base again early Sunday, they said.

"This is the heaviest loss of life and the biggest attack on the African Union mission," said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni. "Our troops fought a defensive battle to protect the camp, but 30 vehicles eventually stormed it. ... The camp is completely destroyed."

The AU troops said they repelled the assailants' first assault. But the rebels overran the camp at around 4 a.m., peacekeepers said as they recovered from the fighting.

The Sudanese army came to the AU troop's aid and repulsed the rebels later Sunday and the remaining AU peacekeepers were evacuated under the protection of the army. By afternoon, some government troops could be seen plundering goods from the burned-out camp as an AU armored vehicle smoldered nearby.

Rebel forces left behind charred armored vehicles and bombed out barracks in the attack. More than 30 peacekeepers were still missing by late Sunday, indicating the death toll from the attack could rise significantly.

Rebels looted several AU armored vehicles and jeeps and took a large amount of ammunition from the base before the Sudanese army drove them out, AU soldiers said.

At least 200,000 people have been killed in more than four years of conflict in Darfur, a region of western Sudan. The government is accused of unleashing Arab militias known as the janjaweed to fight ethnic African rebels. The janjaweed are accused of the worst atrocities of the conflict including rape and mass killings of innocent civilians.

The SLA rebels — like all in Darfur — is highly decentralized with hundreds of midlevel commanders each living in part of the vast Darfur region and commanding a few hundred men in most cases.

Overall, they're thought to have several thousand fighters.

Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the AU peacekeepers, saying the force is not neutral and favors the government side. Several ambushes of AU forces in the past year have been blamed on the rebels.

But Saturday's raid was the first time since the AU mission was deployed in June 2004 that one of its bases has been overrun, though soldiers have been regularly attacked. There are about 6,000 AU peacekeepers in the region currently.

The announcement that new peace talks to solve the conflict will open on Oct. 27 in Libya has sparked a flurry of fighting between rebels and Sudanese government forces as each try to improve their position ahead of the conference.

The attack came as rebels appeared to flee the area around Haskanita because of a large government offensive there over the past two weeks, AU soldiers said.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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